Cook County Record

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Appeals panel rules against advertising company in battle over Bellwood's billboard ban

Federal Court

By Karen Kidd | Jul 27, 2019

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CHICAGO — A Chicago-based advertising and marketing billboard company effectively lost the appeal of its property rights and antitrust claims against the a rival company and the village of Bellwood after it lost a lease following an imposition of a sign ban in the suburban community, a federal appeals court recently ruled.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a 2017 district court decision to dismiss Paramount Media Group's dispute over its property rights and antitrust claims against Bellwood and Image Media Advertising.

"Paramount lost its lease while the suit was pending," the appeals court said in its 11-page decision handed down July 16. "That mooted its claim for injunctive relief from the sign ban." Paramount’s claim for damages also is time barred, except for the company's equal-protection violation allegations, the decision said.

"That claim fails because Paramount was not similarly situated to Image Media," the decision read. "And the village and Image Media are immune from Paramount’s antitrust claims. We need not consider whether a market-participant exception to this immunity exists because Paramount failed to support its antitrust claims."

Appeals Court Judge Diane S. Sykes wrote the decision in which judges Kenneth F. Ripple and Michael Y. Scudder Jr. concurred.

The case stems from Paramount's February 2005 lease agreement for a property in Bellwood where the media group could erect and maintain one new 20-foot by 60-foot double-faced advertising sign, according to the background portion of the appeals court's decision. Paramount never obtained a sign permit from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to erect the billboard, as required but state law, but also never installed the sign.

Four years later, Bellwood amended is zoning code sign ordinance to ban new billboard permits, which meant Paramount effectively lost its opportunity to build its sign on the property it leased.

About three years later, Bellwood enacted an ordinance that amended its statute to add an exception to its ban on off-site signs, which read: "An off-site advertising sign permit proposed to be located on village owned or controlled property may be exempted from the terms of this chapter subject to any condition set by the mayor and board of trustees."

In 2012 Bellwood agreed that Image Media Advertising could receive a permit for an outdoor advertising structure across the street from the property Paramount leased in 2005, with Image Media receiving from Bellwood a leasehold interest, or easement, on the property. At the time, Paramount had also submitted an unsuccessful bid for a lease on the property across the street.

Paramount subsequently alleged, among other things, violations of its rights under the First Amendment and 14th Amendment, in addition to conspiracy to monopolize the billboard market in Bellwood and antitrust violations of the Sherman Act. Paramount sought a declaratory judgment that Bellwood lacked authority under Illinois law to enter into its agreement with Image Media.

In February 2017, a judge in Chicago federal district court dismissed Paramount's First Amendment and Sherman Act claims. The judge ruled Paramount had not established standing in its allegations that Bellwood’s outdoor sign ordinance violated the First Amendment.

This district court also ruled that, even had Paramount established standing, Bellwood's sign ordinances were constitutional.

Paramount appealed, arguing in part that Bellwood's ban on new billboard permits violated the First Amendment and Paramount's due process rights, and asked that Bellwood be enjoined from enforcing the ban and for damages in lost advertising revenue.

"After filing its complaint, Paramount lost its lease agreement and with it any property interest within the village," the appeals court decision said. "So an injunction against the village cannot help it."

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